Pressure, it seems, is a fact of life in the Southeastern Conference.
Last year, Mark Richt — a coach who had gone 49-17 in his last five years — was shown the door by Georgia. LSU very nearly fired a championship coach coming off a 9-3 season. In 2012, Auburn fired Gene Chizik just two years removed from winning a national championship. Success can buy you more time, but it seems at many SEC programs, the coach is always just one bad year away from being shown the door.
Of course, not every program has the same expectations -- and not every coach gets the same amount of slack for past success. So who is under the most pressure in 2016? Here are the SEC Hot Seat Rankings, 2016 preseason edition.
Tier 1: Really Need A Good Year
- Gus Malzahn: Looked at one way, Malzahn’s record at Auburn — 27-13 in three years with an SEC championship and a national title game appearance — should be fine. But it’s the trajectory that is the problem. The championship was in his first year; the last two seasons have seen Auburn go 8-5 and then 7-6 last year. Malzahn got the dreaded “vote of confidence” from his athletic director after last season, which is, of course, a sign that the AD is considering a change. (Notice how Alabama’s AD never gives Nick Saban a vote of confidence. It’s just assumed.) This doesn’t mean that Malzahn needs to win the SEC, but a bounce-back season to 8-4 or 9-3 would certainly be helpful. So, too, would beating Alabama.
- Mark Stoops: Last year looked like it was going to be Kentucky’s year. Coming off a promising 2014, Kentucky got off to a 4-1 start in 2015 -- and then went 1-6 the rest of the way, beating only an awful Charlotte team. Even worse, while the record (5-7) was the same, the team seemed to regress from year two to year three. You could make an argument for Stoops being on a hotter seat than Malzahn; the difference, though, is that Malzahn won’t keep his job if he goes 6-6. Stoops probably will.
- Kevin Sumlin: Like Malzahn, Sumlin might have inadvertently dug his own grave by having so much success early on. Before Sumlin, the last time the Aggies even won eight games in back to back years was 1998-99... and yet, going 11-2 with a top 5 finish in year one makes back-to-back eight-win seasons feel like a disappointment. And losing three star quarterbacks in the last two years isn’t helping his cause, either. On the other hand, Sumlin’s buyout clause — which requires A&M to pay the remainder of his contract in full within 60 days if he’s fired without cause — give him a bit more rope than most coaches. They might figure out a way to pay that if he goes 5-7, but you’re probably not going to pay all that money just so you can get rid of an 8-4 coach.
- Les Miles: I have to admit, I’m a bit surprised that I’m putting Miles this low. But that speaks more to the status of the first three coaches as it does to Miles, who very nearly got fired last season. Of course, if Miles wins an SEC championship in 2016, that will all be forgotten. But 9-3, with another loss to Alabama, with this team? That might end up being a fireable offense.
Tier 2: Getting A Little Warm
5. Derek Mason: Mason’s first two years at Vanderbilt have been entirely forgettable, as the Commodores have gone 7-17 (2-14 in the SEC.) On the other hand, if not for following on the heels of Vanderbilt’s most successful three-year run since World War II, his performance would be par for the course. That said, Mason is under some pressure to win this year. He probably will get fired if he goes 3-9, but going 5-7 with an SEC win or two and mostly being competitive against better teams? That probably gets him a fourth year.
6. Butch Jones: Jones has done yeoman’s work in building Tennessee back up after the disastrous Derek Dooley years. This year, his fourth in Knoxville, is about establishing upside. A 10-2 or 11-1 season, and in particular ending the long losing streaks against rivals Alabama and Florida, would go a long way toward ensuring Jones’ long-term job security. A 9-3 (or worse) season will have Tennessee fans wondering if playing third fiddle to Florida and Georgia in the East is their new place in the world. In other words, Jones definitely won’t be on a warm seat in 2017: he’ll either establish his presence or he’ll be in a very uncomfortable spot next year.
7. Bret Bielema: At some point, producing top-15 quality teams has to start resulting in winning games. The last two years for Arkansas have established clear upside for the program, but advanced stats pegging you as a good team doesn’t give you license to go 7-5 in perpetuity. But only three years into his Arkansas tenure, it does give him quite a bit of rope — because producing high-quality teams does mean the wins will probably come at some point.
Tier 3: Probably Fine For Now
8. Hugh Freeze: The last time Ole Miss won the Sugar Bowl and finished a season in the AP top 10, the coach was John Vaught, and the quarterback was Archie Manning. In other words, Ole Miss hasn’t seen these heights in a long time. The only potential threat to Freeze’s tenure is an ongoing NCAA investigation, but so far there hasn’t been anything resembling a smoking gun.
9. Dan Mullen: Like Ole Miss, Mississippi State is flying at heights it hasn’t seen in a long time. If ever. There’s a chance that it falls apart with Dak Prescott gone, but assuming that the program doesn’t collapse, Mullen can probably stay in Starkville as long as he wants.
Tier 4: The New(ish) Guys
10. Jim McElwain: McElwain took over a program that was floundering and promptly won 10 games. It’s Florida, so there’s a ton of pressure, and there are questions about McElwain’s ability to recruit at a high level. But for now, McElwain is still in the honeymoon phase and will get at least two more years.
11. Kirby Smart: See the comments about Mark Richt at the top of this post? That’s the bar Smart has to clear. He’s not on a hot seat yet, but when the last guy got fired for “only” winning 9-10 games a year, you can pretty well figure out just what the expectations are here. This year is a grace year, but after that he’ll need to produce wins and championships to keep his job.
12. Will Muschamp: In some ways, the timing of Spurrier’s departure was ideal for Muschamp. Can you imagine if Spurrier had left after 2014 and the new coach had promptly gone 3-9? Instead, Muschamp gets to walk into a situation in which there’s little immediate pressure. Everybody knows that Spurrier didn’t leave him a stacked cupboard. So, he’ll get some time before the pressure turns up.
13. Barry Odom: See above. Gary Pinkel leaving after 2014 would have meant that the new coach has a secretly-depleted roster on his hands; instead, Odom gets to take over after a 5-7 season. There’s going to be pressure to win eventually, but nobody is expecting Odom to win (or even contend in) the East right away.
Tier 5: No.
14. Nick Saban: Winning four national titles in seven years does wonders for your job security. Even at Alabama.